Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 8 May 2001 (continued)
East Down Institute of Further
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail when capital expenditure will be provided for the construction of the new East Down Institute of Further and Higher Education in Downpatrick and to make a statement.
The preferred option in the economic appraisal for a new college on the existing site has been cleared as the solution which offers best value for money in the case of the East Down Institute of Further and Higher Education in Downpatrick. It will be the subject of a private finance initiative test when capital resources can be made available, but unfortunately, at the present time, no funding commitment can be given.
I thank the Minister for his reply. He will know that there have been plans, discussions and representations about this education establishment since 1997. The building is old and decrepit. He will also know that the East Down Institute serves a very large area - the whole of the east Down peninsula as well as the southern part of Ards. It is important that finance be made available. I am most disappointed that it will probably be dependent on a private finance initiative, which will delay this for another couple of years.
I am disappointed that we cannot meet all the pressing needs in the development of the estate in the further education sector. I have put the development of modern facilities and the provision of new replacement estate at the top of the agenda. All these matters become subject, eventually, to the provision of resources. The case for the East Down Institute is one that I fully appreciate. I am aware of the difficult circumstances in which members of staff have to work. I can assure them that I am pressing ahead, insofar as we can at this point, with all the plans.
As the basis for procurement, private finance initiative, rather than delaying, is a means by which we can expedite provision. The situation in County Tyrone, in both Dungannon and Omagh, and, indeed, elsewhere where we have had recourse to private finance initiative procurement, only bears out the point that we will have estate renewed and replaced at those locations earlier than might otherwise have been possible.
New Technologies Training
Mr M Murphy
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to outline what measures are in place for training for new technologies such as computer-based production for commercial and green technologies.
There has been a significant growth in the number of university and further education places in all computer-related areas which address issues concerning the emerging technologies. In addition, my Department supports a range of vocational courses, particularly in manufacturing, which contain elements that relate to computer-based manufacturing and environmental issues.
Mr M Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his answer. Can he tell the Assembly what discussions he has had with the industry, and, in particular, with those pioneering in green technology, to determine their training requirements? What training courses is he hoping to make available so that we can benefit from potential growth in this area?
I assure the Member that I am having regular discussions with a wide range of representatives from business sectors encompassing virtually all, if not all, our industries. This morning, I had a wide-ranging discussion with representatives of our universities and business sectors on the provision of foundation degrees. The Member will appreciate that the areas in which foundation degrees will be delivered during the first two-year pilot phase are those where there is growth potential in our industrial sector. Regular contact is, therefore, underway, and we receive a wide range of advice as to the areas on which we need to focus. We respond to that advice where it is possible, and where we feel that it is appropriate to do so.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail the progress made with the work of the taskforce on employability and long-term unemployment.
Two meetings of the taskforce on employability and long-term unemployment have taken place. The terms of reference and a definition of employability have been agreed. I intend to publish a scoping study on employability, and the taskforce will also engage with a broad range of non-governmental organisations with an interest in that issue. The taskforce is cross- departmental in its composition, with representation from the Equality Commission.
What are the terms of reference for the taskforce, and when does the Minister expect an outcome from the group?
The taskforce is to report its recommendations by spring 2002, by which time it is hoped that the implementation of those adopted will begin. The first term of reference is to analyse the factors which make individuals and groups employable and the obstacles faced by the economically inactive, - especially the long-term unemployed - including the different experiences of the unemployed on a community and geographic basis. The second is to engage with others who have a close interest in employability and long-term unemployment to seek their views on how obstacles to both might be overcome. The third is to report and make recommendations on how current actions might be improved, including any new initiatives which might be undertaken by Government Departments in Northern Ireland and by others outside of Government.
Adult Literacy and Numeracy
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail what progress has been made by the Basic Skills Unit in tackling the issue of adult literacy and numeracy.
The Basic Skills Unit under the direction of the basic skills committee has advised the Department on areas of basic skills strategy and policy development. The Department is now studying this advice, and together with the basic skills strategy completed by the Department for Education and Employment, it will assist my Department in formulating a Northern Ireland strategy.
I thank the Minister for his continuing interest in this field. Given that the bottom 20% of those with low literacy and numeracy levels are now a vital part of the workforce, does the Minister agree that the task of this unit is more important than ever?
As Mr Dallat will recall, we have emphasised in the House and elsewhere the importance placed by my Department, and the Executive as a whole, on addressing the problems associated with inadequate levels of literacy and numeracy. This is also reflected in the Programme for Government. Almost 20% of employees manifest some literacy and numeracy deficit. This deficit is also a contributory factor in unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment.
It is an indictment of a modern society for it to be reported that some 25% of our adult population have less than basic literacy and numeracy skills. Therefore there is an urgency in addressing that problem.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Question 17, in the name of Ms Patricia Lewsley, has been withdrawn.
asked the Minister for Social Development to outline what steps he intends to take to ensure that there is sufficient land made available for social housing and to make a statement.
The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):
The social housing programme is not currently constrained by a shortage of land. In the last financial year housing associations started just over 1,100 new units, and the target for the current year is 1,200. The year 2001-02 has been overprogrammed to allow for slippage, but, despite that, only six of the sites required for the gross programme have still to be identified. In subsequent years the number of sites still to be identified is higher, but at this early stage in the development process that is not unusual.
Does the Minister support the concept of allocating a percentage of development land for social housing where there is an established need, so that those people dependent on public authority housing are not disadvantaged by the unavailability of building land at affordable prices. Will he go further than that and encourage the integration of private and public housing?
I will take the last part of the question first. The integration of private and public housing is a very healthy option. It was first introduced many years ago when the Housing Executive took the policy decision of selling off homes to sitting tenants. That was the right road to go down, and I recall being, I think, the first councillor in what was then Dungannon District Council to propose that that was the right road to go down. It is good that private and social housing - where they can be interrelated and intermixed - go hand in hand. From that, many good things stem.
With regard to the first part of Mr Dallat's question, if he has an area in his constituency in mind, I am prepared to take a look at that and discuss it with him. I look forward to hearing more details from him.
In Kircubbin there is land available, and there is a demand for social housing development. Will the Minister therefore encourage the Housing Executive and others to make an immediate planning application? Up until now that has been delayed, because there were insufficient sewerage facilities. That problem has been overcome, and I look forward to more social housing development in Kircubbin.
I will be proactive in trying to address housing needs in the social sector wherever they are - Kircubbin or elsewhere. It would not be right to go into speculative land purchase where there is no present urgent need, but if there is a present urgent need and the rest of the infrastructures such as water and sewerage are in place, then that is an area in which I will be proactive.
What are the Minister's targets for new social house building over the next three years?
The current public expenditure assumptions and projections of private finance that housing associations will attract will enable a start to be made on approximately 1,200 units in each of the next three years.
Play Areas for Children
asked the Minister for Social Development if the Housing Executive will enter into partnership arrangements with local district councils and community groups to provide play areas for children.
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive already works closely with district councils and community groups in providing sites in Housing Executive estates for play areas and will continue to do so.
Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra agus cuirim fáilte roimhe. Tá mé ag seasamh dár bpáistí uilig agus mé ag labhairt ar an ábhar seo.
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has abandoned many play areas in housing estates throughout the Six Counties, and responsibility for the maintenance of the existing equipment and the installation of new apparatus has had to be undertaken by councils working with community groups. Will the Minister ensure that the Housing Executive displays greater interaction and input in order to develop safe and imaginative play areas?
Local district councils are responsible for play areas in housing estates. While the Housing Executive's primary responsibility is the provision of social housing, it also recognises the needs of its tenants and provides social facilities such as shops, community centres and play areas in many of its estates.
Lisburn Borough Council has a good working relationship with the Housing Executive, and the council has a children's play strategy into which the Housing Executive had an input. A trust has now been set up whereby the Housing Executive, the local council, community groups and many statutory agencies have become involved. Will the Minister's Department consider this as a model of best practice, and will he urge his Department to support that?
In relation to the integration of different types of housing, especially for young children with disabilities, will the Minister take on board the issue that there should be facilities available for these children?
I can say an emphatic "yes" to that question. Whatever his or her circumstances, no child should be disadvantaged. If there is an area where we as a Department can be involved, we will be. However, I must return to my original answer that play areas are the responsibility of local district councils.
Will the Minister acknowledge that partnership arrangements can bring a sense of community ownership and subsequent respect for community-owned play areas? Is the Minister aware of successful play area partnerships that have been established in areas such as Newtownabbey, specifically in the New Mossley area? What steps has the Minister's Department taken to identify other sectors of need in order to assist areas such as Larne and Carrickfergus, where there is a relatively new and emergent community infrastructure, to make them aware that this is one method of improving the local community environment?
My Department and I are always looking at ways in which we can be innovative and create schemes whereby facilities such as children's play areas can be extended. The Member's comments are interesting, and I will come back to him on this matter.
Housing Associations: Monitoring
asked the Minister for Social Development to outline the steps he is taking to provide regulation and monitoring of Housing Associations by the Housing Executive in the forthcoming Housing Bill and to make a statement.
I have no plans to make provision in the forthcoming Housing Bill for regulation and monitoring of housing associations by the Housing Executive. Regulation and monitoring are the responsibility of my Department, and that has been the case since housing associations were required by law to be registered some 25 years ago. Over that time housing associations have grown, developed and taken on new responsibilities. I am entirely happy with my Department's role in supervising housing associations, and I see no point in change for change's sake. I see no reason to alter the present arrangements, which are working perfectly well. There is close co-operation between my Department and the Housing Executive to ensure that housing need is met, and that, of course, is my primary concern.
The Minister's assessment of his departmental relationship with the housing associations, and the relationship between the Housing Executive and the associations, is not shared by many. I have listened to his statement with some surprise and alarm. It was intended, from his predecessor's time, that the Housing Bill would include provision for the Housing Executive to have regulatory and overseeing facilities on the housing associations, whose work on the ground varies considerably in quality, cost effectiveness, management and, sometimes, allocations of tenancies. I urge the Minister to reconsider this position and - if the Bill is already drafted - to introduce amendments to bring forward what was a proven concept.
I know this subject is dear to Mr McGrady's heart, because he has raised it on a number of occasions. Nevertheless, the current system is effective and is supplying the need on the ground. I have listened carefully to what he has said, but I do not envisage any change in this matter in the new Housing Bill that will come before the House in the near future.
Can the Minister tell the House how many houses were constructed under the direction of housing associations in the last three years? Can he also provide numbers of current active housing associations by constituency? Perhaps I am asking a wee bit too much.
The Member is asking for a fair wee bit. However, the answer that I gave to Mr Berry was that housing associations would try to provide something in the region of 1,100 or 1,200 new units. I will get the exact figure for the Member and respond in writing.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I remind Members that the supplementary question is supposed to be relevant to the oral question as stated on the Question Paper.
Housing Executive House Sales
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail if there has been an increase in the backlog of Housing Executive house sale applications since processing has been changed from regional offices to a central processing office in Craigavon.
Since 1 April 2000, when responsibility for processing house sale applications was transferred from regional offices to a central processing office in Craigavon, the backlog of applications in the region has been reduced from 372 to 99. This refers to people waiting more than the target time of 10 weeks for an offer to be made to a prospective purchaser.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. He will agree that any backlog will increase the amount of expenditure for those waiting, especially the house buyers who have some difficulty with other issues. I would have assumed that centralisation would have created some difficulty by isolating or distancing those in the Department trying to deal with difficulties in areas that they were not familiar with. Can the Minister tell buyers, or future buyers, that this will not happen, and that the new structure will work more efficiently than that which was in place?
The quick answer is that it is not anticipated that a backlog will reoccur. Work continued on processing applications, and the reorganisation of the office has provided the flexibility to deploy resources as required. I cannot say that there will never be a backlog. Nevertheless, I do not anticipate one, as I believe that the measures now in place are adequately dealing with the situation. One must bear in mind that it has reduced the number waiting from 372 to 99. That speaks for itself.
Income Support and Attendance Allowance
asked the Minister for Social Development to confirm that the maximum a single unemployed person can obtain, combining income support and attendance allowance, is £75·59.
The amount of income support and attendance allowance that a customer is entitled to varies according to individual circumstances. I am unable to comment on individual cases without detailed information. However, I will be happy to look into particular cases if the Member provides the appropriate details.
Is the legislation that the Minister is using equality-tested against section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998? Although the figure given for the maximum amount that can be obtained by a single unemployed person is correct, a person who voluntarily ceases employment and chooses to look after an elderly parent will receive much less than the basic minimum wage.
Under the Department's equality scheme, we are committed to the screening of all social security policies as a prelude to the preparation of equality impact assessments in instances in which policies are perceived to have a differential impact on the categories referred to in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
The Member feels that there may be inequality. It is difficult for me to comment without knowing all the details of the matter. If the Member will pass details of the case on to me, we will investigate it thoroughly.
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the role of his officials in their advisory capacity to Strabane 2000.
My officials have provided general advice and information to Strabane 2000 on urban regeneration. That has included details of the Department's regeneration policies and advice on structural and organisational issues relating to the establishment and implementation of regeneration strategies.
I thank the Minister for his detailed reply. Projects such as Strabane 2000 need to be clearly non-party political and fully inclusive, embracing the whole community, as well as the statutory bodies, agencies and authorities. On that basis, I willingly lend my support to Strabane 2000, but I am dismayed, as, I am sure, is the Minister by an incident at a "Pride in Our Town" sub-committee meeting of Strabane 2000.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
This is an opportunity to ask questions. The Member must come to his question, as this is not an opportunity for statements.
I am coming to the question as quickly as I can. At the meeting to which I refer - this is what I want the Minister to address - Cllr McNulty of Sinn Féin challenged the presence of two officers from Strabane RUC's community affairs team in a blatantly party political fashion, aided and abetted by the SDLP chairman, Cllr Eugene Mullen. The officers were excluded from the meeting. I hope that the Minister will investigate that disgraceful incident with Strabane 2000 and Strabane district command unit of the RUC. Will he also consider whether it is appropriate for officials from his Department to maintain their advisory role in the absence of an apology to the two RUC community affairs officers concerned?
I have listened carefully to what Mr Hussey said. It is difficult for me to comment on a particular case, but I will have the matter investigated. I want to see what my Department's role is and what repercussions there might be from the incident. I shall get back to Mr Hussey on the matter.
As a member of Strabane 2000, I express my disappointment that the incident occurred.
Strabane 2000 was set up to revitalise Strabane town centre, involving local elected representatives, the Chamber of Commerce and Government Departments. We also employed professional advisers to help redesign our town centre to make it environmentally friendly for residents and attractive to visitors. We are beginning to see the results. Will the Minister's Department do its utmost to promote Strabane?
We will. The Department has already committed some £15,000 towards the cost of consultants employed by Strabane 2000. It has earmarked £100,000 this year to assist with the redevelopment of two sites in the town centre. That demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, the Department's commitment to Strabane, and I hope it also reassures the Member.
With regard to the primary question as opposed to the supplementaries, have officials acted in a similar way and given similar advice to other groups in Northern Ireland?
Officials have given similar advice and guidance to other groups involved in urban regeneration.
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the current waiting time for occupational therapy reports for those needing adaptations carried out to their homes.
The occupational therapy service can receive referrals for adaptations to houses from sources other than the Housing Executive. The Housing Executive holds information only about cases where the initial approach has been to its district offices or grants offices. Of these, at the end of March 2001, there were 3,270 referrals comprising 1,063 from public-sector tenants and 2,207 from private-sector applicants. Some reports are returned in under four weeks, but the majority are received between five and 40 weeks, with about one third waiting more than 40 weeks.
How does this compare to previous years? We as elected representatives often have to face people with serious illnesses who come to us complaining that they cannot get adaptions carried out in a reasonable time. How can this list be reduced further so that people will not have to wait so long for necessary adaptions?
We are continually looking at this sort of situation, but from the date of referral until 31 March 2001, reports on 301 cases were provided in under four weeks; 576 reports were provided in between five and 12 weeks; 572 reports were provided in between 13 and 26 weeks; 479 reports were received in between 27 and 40 weeks; and 1,342 reports took more than 40 weeks. We are always endeavouring to reduce the time period, and we will be devoting our energies to that in the future as we have done in the past.
I know that the Minister will accept that there is a very close link between social development and health, social services and public safety, but will he accept that the problem is the shortage of occupational therapists across Northern Ireland? I know that the number of occupational therapists is to be increased by the Health Minister, but does he agree that many people, and especially the elderly, need only minor adjustments such as handrails to their homes?
While I have great respect for the profession and ability of occupational therapists, it does not require a professional person to say that an extra handrail is needed for the home of an elderly person in his 70s or 80s. I could give many other examples. It would be tremendous if the Minister could join with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the two Departments could work together; there is a great deal of suffering across Northern Ireland.
My answer will be deemed long and convulted, but it is important that it be given. A group comprising the Housing Executive and officials from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has examined and reported on ways in which the service can be improved. The report recommended the immediate establishment of a joint media group to develop and implement an action plan to deal with information issues, to devise a step-by-step guide with timescales and performance targets for the entire adaptations process and to agree priorities.
In addition, it was proposed to extend the list of minor works which did not require assessment by an occupational therapist and to introduce a simple screening tool to allow Housing Executive staff to assess requests for heating adaptations. Occupational therapists would thus be free to deal with more complex cases. On 1 March 2001 the Housing Executive began to process cases, estimated at 1,700, requesting heating adaptations. I hope that assures the Member that work is in progress to deal with the more minor things he mentioned.
Can the Minister advise if it is policy in the case of severely physically and mentally handicapped young persons that an occupational therapist's report cannot be acted upon until they have reached the age of 16? If so, does he not agree that this is bureaucracy gone mad? In many cases of which I am aware, the needs of the young persons are self-evident long before that age is reached. In the intervening period they are forced to live in conditions which are totally unacceptable in 2001.
I assume that the question is based on evidence which is already known, but that may not be the case. If the Member feels that someone in his constituency has suffered as a result of this, then I would like to hear from him. We can take a long hard look at the matter. If that is the case and it is borne out after investigation, then something should and will be done.
Rent Arrears and Antisocial Tenants
asked the Minister for Social Development to give his assessment of the new scheme introduced last November to address rent arrears and anti-social tenants.